canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Return: A Ghost Story 

by Lynda Curnoe

For twenty-five years, Sally had been living in an apartment in Toronto. But after her husband died she quit her job and returned to Paris, Ontario, her home town, to begin again. John, who had lived for two years after first being diagnosed with lung cancer had been fond of using the word ironic to describe how their daughter Cathy had been able to afford a house while he and Sally who had worked all their lives had never been able to manage a down payment. Sally thought Johnís feelings tended more towards anger than irony but never said so. With her boyfriend Jason, Cathy was nearing the end of renovating a semi near the Danforth. Sally hoped one day for grandchildren.

With some insurance money from her husbandís employer and secure in half his pension, as well as her own full one, Sally decided to buy a house.

"Mom," warned Cathy, "you donít know anyone there now except those old friends of your motherís."

"I can join things." she said, "And besides there are my cousins."

There were plenty of houses she could afford in Paris. It was simply amazing that a older yellow brick house with pretty gingerbread trim, the kind of house that would be sought after in Toronto, could easily be had. There were no bidding wars and few renovations were needed or wanted. The house she chose was in the same neighbourhood where she had grown up. As a child she had even known the occupants, the Wilsons, an English couple with two kids who had arrived in Canada in the mid fifties. Now the mother had died, the father was living in a seniors apartment with his new wife, and the children married and living away.

Sallyís new house was not unusual in design. But it was charming. A stained glass window set in the front door and original to the house was unusually attractive, a geometric design framed interwoven leaves and tulip like flowers. The house was interesting enough to attract city people who flocked to the area for summer theatre in nearby Fergus, Elora and Guelph. She had been told she might be successful.

One and one half story houses like this were common all over Ontario. This one was typically long and narrow, with a staircase along the side wall beside a small front room, a large dining room and an even larger modern kitchen built on at the back with a two piece bathroom off the back entrance. Off the dining room was a small room the Wilsons had used as a bedroom when they couldnít manage the stairs anymore. Upstairs contained three small bedrooms with sloping ceilings and a large bathroom, originally a fourth bedroom, converted when the town got sanitary sewers. Sallyís plan was to establish a bed and breakfast using the second story for guests while she would live downstairs using the Wilsonís bedroom for herself. She would have to put in a shower in the main floor bathroom and re-decorate the second floor, stripping the bedrooms of dusty flowered wallpaper.

Meanwhile Sally got to know the town once again walking, greeting people, attending the church her parents had attended. She decided against joining organizations until she was better established. She found her house comfortable, if a little draughty, and enjoyed her evenings alone with television, rented videos and library books. Cathy and her partner had visited a few weekends that winter, helping with stripping and painting.

After living in a two bedroom apartment, Sally found her furniture did not go far enough. She needed more occasional tables, dressers and comfortable chairs and planned on purchasing new beds for the bedrooms upstairs. Fortunately the town had several antique stores she visited every week or so. And she began attending garage sales Saturday mornings in the spring.

Standing on the front sidewalk, rummaging through a box of old handbags, Sally noticed her mother, Jean, who had been dead for the last 10 years. She was surprised and looked around her to see if anyone else had seen anything unusual. She went over to the woman who had just walked up to the owner to ask the price of a decent brown leather handbag.

"Hello Mother."

"Oh hello dear."

"What are you doing here. I thought you were dead."

"Well I certainly am, but I get lonely sometimes. So I come back."

"Whereís Dad?"

"Heís around somewhere."

And sally saw her father, Gord, in the laneway carefully inspecting a saw.

"Where are you living."

"In our own house. Where do you think?"

Sally had walked by their family home a few times, noticing children playing around the front porch and a woman in jeans and a long sweater one sunny day sitting on the top step holding a cup of coffee. She had nodded hello.

"What about the people living there?"

"Oh we donít bother them."

"Why donít you come over for a cup of tea and tell me all about what Cathy is up to. I wonder why she never married. I always thought Cathy would have children. As a child she loved those dolls of hers. Remember?"

After her mother had purchased the handbag and her father had joined them they began walking together.

"Itís really good to see you Sally." said her father.

"Me too." said sally.

"Do you ever see Billy?" she asked.

"Yes, he lives with us too."

Billy was Sallyís brother who had been killed as a teenager in a car accident after a high school prom night. His date had survived but been left with a limp and scarring on her face and neck. Billy, who had not been wearing a seatbelt, had been thrown from the car. Police had found him in a patch of dogwood beside the road. Jean and Gord had been heartbroken and had never gotten over it.

Arriving at their old home Jean opened the front door(they had never used keys although had some for when they went on holiday) and shouted, "Billy look whoís here."

Billy came lumbering down the stairs in old jeans and a red and brown striped sweater Sally remembered from a long time ago.

"Oh wow. Hi Sally. Long time no see, eh. God, you look just like Grandma."

The two were unused to hugging so they just looked at each other and grinned.

Sally realized that the new family she had seen on her walks were nowhere in sight. In fact, all the furniture was just as she remembered from childhood. Even some of the tables that were now in her new house.

In the living room was the large metal Spartan TV, rabbit ears on top, Gordís pride and joy.

"Will you stay for lunch sweetie?" said her father

"Of course."

"Whatíll we have Jean?"

"How about french toast with maple syrup. Iíve still got some bacon. Come in and help honey."

Sally did not do much helping because her mother was a proficient cook but she did set the table. All the while the two chatted away.

"I was so sorry to hear about Johnís death. It was hard on both of you."

"Yes." said Sally

"I never thought you were that happy together."

"We got along well enough. But John had an unpleasant resentful side to him. He never hurt me but he was often angry."

"Yes, I did notice that about him."

"And tell me all about Cathyís new house. I hear she and Jason are renovating it themselves. Such a lot of work. However does she know how to do all those things, drywall, plumbing. I wouldnít have a clue."

Sally wondered how her mother knew of these things but did not ask.

"Youíre looking really good dear. How old are you now, Iíve forgotten."

"Iím fifty five mom. You were never good at figures."

"Why thatís fifteen years older than me and thirteen years older than Dad. Billyís only eighteen. But you donít look fifty five. You still look pretty and slim and I love the colour of your hair."

"I donít want to go grey just yet. I take care of myself, do a lot of walking. In Toronto I used to go to the Y after work. I miss that here. There is a gym in Guelph I could drive to but donít know if I would keep it up, driving over there every couple of days. I was also thinking of buying a bench press and some weights. Not sure if I have the discipline for that. The other thing Iím going to do is buy a bike and ride all over the countryside as I used to do, remember?"

"I sure do. You really loved that bike. I wonder where it is. it might still be in the garage. Iíll have to ask Dad."

"Iíd want a newer bike one with a lighter frame and lots of gears. Might have to go to Toronto to get the one I want."

"Oh well thatís OK dear. When we were younger daily life was enough exercise for us. Chasing after you kids, lugging the washing up from the basement and hanging it outside all winter long."

When lunch was ready Jean called out to Gord and Billy.

"Whatís up with you Billy?" Sally asked. "Got a girlfriend."

Billy blushed and nodded. "Heather Salter. Remember? Weíre going to the prom Saturday night."

What should I do? Sally thought. Shout out a warning? No, she simply asked him to be careful and not to drink and drive. She remembered her own teenage years when she and her friends would take a micky of vodka out for a gravel run on weekends or after a school dance. Kids had been killed, some from Paris and others from neighbouring towns. Billy too.

After lunch Jean said she was invited out for tea and asked Sally along. "The gals would all love to see you too."

Sally remembered her motherís friends, knew where they all lived and what their houses were like inside. She remembered so much. Everything was flooding back. Her father had gone down into the basement and Billy had once again gone up to his room.

"Not today mom. Iíll come with you another time." Part of her wanted to stay but most of her knew all this had to end sometime, might as well be now. She wouldnít let herself be sad or even nostalgic. It was her choice.

"Goodbye!" Sally shouted to her father and brother.

"Well, it was really, really nice to see you," said her mother hugging and kissing Sally on the cheek. She called through the front screen door "Come again."

Sally walked over to the old house the next day and the day after that but saw only an orange cat meowing by the front door and the children she had seen that first time playing on the porch. She stopped walking by the day she noticed someone tweaking the front curtain, looking out at her.


Lynda Curnoe has been published by Ergo Books, Lyricalmyrical Press, Open Letter, The Literary Review of Canada, Psychic Rotunda and The London Reader. At present she is most interested in poetry and short stories. This is her first published short story.







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